It was meant to be an epic adventure that would launch a new franchise based on the bestselling novels of Clive Cussler. But Raise the Titanic, released in 1980, turned out to be a monumental flop that sank the studio that made it and left its director and stars in the doldrums.
The film, which followed a daring mission to salvage the sunken ship for its cargo of rare minerals that could save the world from a nuclear war, faced countless challenges during its production, such as building a replica of the Titanic, finding suitable locations, and dealing with bad weather and technical issues.
The 55-foot model of the Titanic used for the refloating scenes cost $350,000 to build but was too big for its tank. A bigger tank had to be built for $6 million, which could hold 40 million liters of water. This tank was built next to the smaller tank, which had been used for several movies. Reportedly, the total cost of $6 million was $1 million less than the cost to build the original Titanic.
Producer Sir Lew Grade famously said “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic (Ocean).” In 1996, when the £3.3 million operation to raise the Titanic was abandoned, Grade added: “As I said all those years ago, it would be cheaper to lower the Atlantic than raise the Titanic. It was a terrible tragedy, so many lives were lost, and God knows what else. People said there were diamonds and gold on board, but I never found any. They should let it rest in peace now. You can’t do anything about the people that went down in her. It’s futile.”
The film’s failure led to the collapse of ITC Entertainment, the company behind it, and damaged the careers of its director and stars. Director Jerry Jameson never made another feature film after Raise the Titanic. Jason Robards, who played Admiral James Sandecker, later said he regretted taking the role and called it “a disaster.” Richard Jordan, who played Dirk Pitt, the hero of Cussler’s novels, also expressed his disappointment with the film and said he felt “cheated” by the script.
Cussler himself was so unhappy with the film that he sued Grade for breach of contract and creative control. He also refused to allow any of his other novels to be adapted for the screen until 2005’s Sahara, which also flopped and resulted in another lawsuit.
The film was not only a financial disaster but also a nightmare for the cast and crew. In one infamous incident, someone spiked the lobster chowder with PCP during filming in Nova Scotia, causing about 50 people to fall ill or hallucinate. Actor Bill Paxton was among those affected and had to breathe into a paper bag to calm down. He later said: “You see some people are freaking out, some people are conga dancing, some people are euphoric.”
The film was surprisingly accurate on one point, though they didn’t know it at the time. Computer displays in the movie show the Titanic resting at a depth of 12,347 feet. When the wreck was discovered in 1985, it was resting at a depth of 12,415 feet.
But aside from that minor detail, Raise the Titanic was a colossal failure that proved that not even the most famous ship in history could guarantee a hit.